A Conversation with E. Angela Johnson

A Conversation with E. Angela Johnson

S1 Ep 1. Writing to Understand Family & Exploring Art and Community With E. Angela Johnson

In this episode of Call/Response, Dallas poet and essayist E. Angela Johnson talks about her creative process, art that inspires her, and her latest essay collection in progress, currently titled "There Are No Monsters Here."

Synopsis: Angela leans on writing and visual art to understand family and explore her community. Her favorite places to see art range from a favorite Dallas coffee shop to large museums in Dallas and beyond, and she draws inspiration from connecting with local artists and participating in Instagram prompts with her close friends.

In this conversation, we discuss how these multifaceted creative practices help Angela navigate a uniquely life altering turning point with her newly found birth family.

Mentioned in this Episode:

Artists: Richard L. Ross, Erica Felicella

Books: George Saunders "Pastoralia," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Artist & Writer Residency: 100 W Corsicana

Textural Abstractions: Judd Farris (Private Account)

Museums: Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)

Coffee + Art: Full City Rooster

Community Art, Dallas: The Cedars Open Studios, Oak Cliff Cultural Center

Angela's Website: www.yourfriendangela.com


You're listening to Call and Response with K.Co Press, Conversations with Writers on Art and Artists on Literature.  I'm Stephanie Khattak.

Today we'll be speaking with E. Angela Johnson, a writer in Dallas who loves visual art and uses it to spark inspiration and guide her creative process.

Hi Angela, thanks for talking to us today. Why don't you tell me a little bit about your work?

I mostly write to make sense of things.

It spans from little tiny poems that about my dogs that I see, to plays if I really need to work through something and become more active in it. And then, I've been writing nonfiction since college. So just views on southern life.  Little slices of what it's like growing up in Texas as a mixed race person, primarily raised by my white family.  I mostly explore those kinds of themes, identity, placement, southern... southern-ness.  

And what else inspires you?

Well, I am really inspired by visual arts. When I was younger, expressing emotions verbally was challenging for me, but I always could sort of look at a painting or honestly, fields of flowers and just sort of identify with that and then use that as a way to describe the big emotions I was trying to process when I was younger.

And so now my home is filled with all sorts of things that are either funny jokes to me or make me laugh. And maybe they're not so great to look at.  I'll talk about my elephant in the room painting shortly, but  yeah, I just like to be around things that either make me laugh or that are just deeply personal  or just beautiful.

Just sort of things you can find new things in every time you look at a different inch of it.  

So, what have you been working on recently?

Recently, I have been — let's say for the past four years — doing research and now I'm starting to put fingers to keyboards, on a nonfiction set of essays about meeting my biological father.

I found him on ancestry. com and I'd never met him at all or knew any side of that family, and the way that I met him was sort of unreal almost. It did almost seem like it's just straight out of a movie, but I found him on Ancestry — or I found a cousin on ancestry, and  she eventually got me connected to him.


By the time I went to visit him, he was very ill and in a coma. And so we never really got to speak. But I was able to sort of meet him over this five day, very intense hospital stay where he was in a coma the whole time. And I met my entire (not entire) but I met eight aunts and uncles that I never knew I had all these cousins...huge family.  

So it was a very layered experience emotionally. It's pretty fraught, but so I've been at sort of unpacking those different things and writing some essays about family and what it means to, to belong somewhere.  

How long have you been working on this book? Is it something you started immediately or is it something that you've kind of gathered stories and information from and then processed it for a while?

Can you share a little bit about that with us?  

Yeah.  Because it like, It was not something you could start right away or me  because I needed to process  not just a traumatic meeting, but I needed to get to know my family. And since my main goal was to meet my dad and get to know my dad, I really only had his siblings and his family (which are family) to kind of bring him back to life for me. And so  without being pushy, you know, you just sort of, you know,  kind of accept invitations. So I spent like we have an annual family reunion that I've gone to every year  that I could then COVID hit.

So that was...unfortunate timing, but we FaceTimed and when they're able, they share, you know, they've been very generous with information and photos and family history.  One of my cousins is very into genealogy so that she's the one that I've found on ancestry.  So that's kind of how I've done the research of just getting to know him through their eyes.  

One of my aunts was kind enough — she lives in Chicago, and we recorded a StoryCorps.  Which was cool to hear  just her talk about  my dad in the context of her family, cause she was younger than him by many years. So, he was kind of out of the house. So she had a different perspective than say a different aunt who's more of his peer.

So, I just kind of gathered different stories about him through other people's eyes.  And then of course you've got to filter out, is someone feeling guilty because this person passed and maybe they don't feel like they did enough? Or  this one has some regrets? So you kind of have  to be a good editor, when you're hearing those things, to kind of make a picture.

So I feel like I've been cobbling him together for the past five years.  

And does your family know that you're working on this project, the book?   

My aunts, a couple of the aunts that I'm closer to now do. The one that I recorded the StoryCorps with. She's interested in reading, you know, what I have to say.

And, I  would like to hear their feedback before I do anything with it. So, hopefully they'll read it when it's done just to make sure that I haven't totally missed the mark on who he was. But it's not just about him. It's about also, like me in that story a lot of that is about figuring out my place in the world in this new context that I have, and I felt a missing context for me.

So, it's been a journey, a lot of therapy.

What are your favorite visual arts experiences and how do they inspire or inform this work or your work overall?  

So, my favorite... I have a couple of living favorite artists in Dallas right now  that I just, I love their work.  Richard L. Ross is one of them.  I don't know if you're familiar with his work, but  I have some. It's fun!

He does these wonderfully simple people with these backgrounds that are —and are not people. They're just sort of like facsimiles of people with these strong emotions and he'll give them like really long names. (Let's see if I can get you the name of this one.)

This piece is called "Rising From The Mouth Of One Who Has Passed Through the Underground." 

That's lovely.  

Yeah! So, he is really inspirational to me. Because I feel like he explores the human condition and just our response to the things around us as humans trying to make sense of this world.  And he does it in such an honest way instead of like, painting himself as someone who gets it immediately and is really navigating life.

Well, he's being eaten here. I don't know if it's him or not. But like. He's not, he's not making it.

Yeah, I can see that!  Like a snake or an abstract figure swallowing another figure.  

Yeah. And he always has some grounding elements of trees, which I really... I also spend a lot of time in my hammock looking at my tree, big oak tree.

And so, I don't know, I just like, How honest it is that there's all this chaos, but we have trees and flowers and how wonderful. They create this landscape for us. 

Is there anyone else? 

Yeah, there's a place I love going to find things, and I'll kind of plug it, but Full City Rooster is a coffee shop over in The Cedars and they change their gallery walls out every couple of months or so. That's where I bought my first two Richard Ross pieces and I find new stuff there every time I go. Just somebody new. Especially if you like photography, they have this huge tintype exhibit up right now (editor's note: April 2024). They just have somebody new, somebody cool talking about something with business owners.

So, like, working class people telling those stories that aren't always elevated  in the literary world and the art world for sure.  So, I think that's why I love them so much. It's working people doing art in stolen time.

How did you learn about Full City Rooster? Is that near your neighborhood or is it somewhere that you've gone for business meetings or just by happenstance?  

I first learned about it through my friend Erica Felicella. She's a performance artist here in Dallas. And then, (Full City Rooster) is really heavily involved in the (I'm going to get it all wrong) but they have these The Cedars studio tours that they are a part of.

They're a stop on several of the Cedars-wide Dallas art walks that they do over there. They're really heavily involved in the arts community. And so they just kind of pop up around the arts and in social media feeds. But I like...I like Michael, the owner I like what he does. I like him as a human. So!


Do you use the visual arts to break through writer's block? And if so, how?  

I definitely do. There are days when I don't want to write anything. And those are usually the days when I know I need to write something. And so I'll do these little  short poems.  Either if I have a picture on my phone that I'm interested in, or I've seen a piece I want, I want to respond to, I'll do that, but  I have this friend Judd from theater school who posts photos of something that he calls "found textural abstractions."

And they're just really zoomed-in things that he sees walking along the streets, or a cool texture on some steel that's rusted in a nice way, but it's just totally zoomed in. There's no other context given. And so, I will look at those. Sometimes I'll save the ones that I like on my camera roll and respond to them.  

And then sometimes I send them to Judd and sometimes I don't, but I'm sure he doesn't want them! But it helps me break through because it's something that means, you know...it's totally abstract. And so, you can just kind of have a blank page that is somewhat started for you.  

That's great! And so, do you have any specific exercises or writing practices around the visual arts besides your abstract prompt?

For writer's block specifically?

Just in general just as you're perhaps you're warming up to  work on your book or you know Just a free write. Is there anything specific that you do to kind of get those creative gears turning?  

I definitely pick the room I'm in. I have art on every wall in my home, and so if the vibe is off in one room for what I'm wanting to talk about, I'll move to a different room.

One of my favorite pieces is this painting. Well, it's like a mixed media, piece  on the back of a print from a gallery. Like, you know, one of those prints you get at the gift shop on foam board. It's like a Monet's "Water Lilies,"  but on the front of it is this like powerful zoomed-in face with these bright colors and chaotic   background with layers of paper.

It's beautiful! I found it on a dump, like, leaning against the dumpster, walking to work one morning, about 10 years ago —no, longer —15 years ago, in Oak Lawn. And, if I'm ever truly stuck, I can just look at that guy for a long time.  Figure out what I should say. But no real prep. It's just kind of around me all the time.

Okay. And so what are some of your favorite places to see art in Dallas?  In addition to Full City Rooster?  

I spend more time in...I know it's like the big guy, but the DMA. I like seeing not just the new exhibits that they bring in, but just the collection.  If you just hyper focus in on one, there's just so much to see. And then, I love going to the Nasher because they have so much like beautiful sculpture and a lot of, like, kinetic sculpture. Sometimes when they have those come in it's just really neat to look at, especially if you need to get something moving. I find seeing things that are actually moving helps your thoughts go too.  

But then there's a smaller gallery. So, here in Oak Cliff  we have the Cultural Center on Jefferson and then we have so many really cool murals. So you can just stroll around. I mean, I feel like I find a new one every week! But, we also have political murals like when Vanessa Guillén was murdered. We have a huge mural for her.  Of course, we have a Selena mural.

There's just murals everywhere! And so, I don't know. I feel like that's kind of nice in an urban area to just see new things pop up and it's not graffitied over immediately. 

And do you have any favorite pieces in either the museum collections or the galleries that stand out to you as something that's kind of stuck in your mind? 

I don't know the name of it, but I spent forever in the exhibit on Islamic art at the DMA. They have so many books that are from —you know —hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years ago. It's just neat to look at the old books that they have that have survived, the words that have survived and the detail that the authors took with the illustrations along the edges, because you know, I can't read a lick of the writing! But I can see all of the little details that they put on the front of the covers and even on the edges. There's probably a very wonderful art term for it. But when they have the plates around the edge of the writing. You know, that's sort of like a frame for the work.  

They're just repeated patterns. It's beautiful. And they're gold leaf, and you could just stare at this little tiny book forever.  

And where are some of your favorite places to see art away from Dallas? I know you're a traveler, so I'd love to know what you've  what you've seen out of town.  

I think  the last museum I went to where I was just, like, blown away by the scale of it was, I went to Detroit for work and the Detroit, I guess it's like the main museum, museum of art, where there's a lot of Diego Rivera work there  like, large scale, his murals that they saved are there.  (editor's note: Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA))

And it was just beautiful. I only had one day, so I was, like, actually sprinting through several galleries to make sure I kind of at least looked a little bit, but that's a place where I would love to go back to and just spend another couple of days there. There were so many artists just focused on —I guess this is a theme I like—working people.

And so what are you reading these days? Who are some of your favorite authors to read?  

Well, I have my comfort books that I reread.  Like "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is an annual read for me. I'm turning 42 this year. And so, I think I'm going to have a "Hitchhiker's Guide.." party. 

But right now I'm rereading George Saunders.

He has a collection of short stories and  it's called "Pastoralia." But he came to Dallas for Arts & Letters Live back in like 2014. And I bought a couple of new books from him that I hadn't heard of. I just love the way he can tell crazy stories succinctly that create an entire universe that's...that's totally different.  But they're not, not, you know, they're not Sci Fi. It's very rooted in.. in mundane life.  I like the way he tells stories  and the characters he creates are so neurotic, it's just, it's...I mean! Relatable.  

So what's next for you? I know you're working on your nonfiction book. Are there other things that you have in the pipeline as well?

Not really. That is my primary focus.  So, I have outlined what I think could be a good collection of these essays. And so the next thing for me is, I'm trying to decide if I want to... I think I'm going to apply to a residency to maybe knock the rest of it out.   Who knows if I'll get in, but there's some around here that are not too far away that would help me keep my job, my day job and also do it.

So 100 West Corsicana  is one that I'm looking at.  And then if I can't do that, I'll make my own  residency and just take some time off and go. But I think right now I'm ready for just a break to focus in on writing.  Break from the day job, I should say.  

So, where can we learn more about you and read your work? Either, you know, your work in progress or any kind of like  essays or poems.

I have a pretty, I have a pretty poorly maintained website you could go to. And maybe this will help me post some new stuff, but it's yourfriendangela.com.  

And is there anything else that you'd like to share with me that I haven't asked you about today?

No, just, we have so many wonderful writers in Dallas that are also either married to visual artists or just love the visual arts. And I'm excited for this show. This is   I think you're going to have some really interesting conversations  talking about the intersection.  

Well, thank you. I know I've enjoyed talking to you today and I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy Saturday morning. And, I will look forward to talking to you again soon.  

Oh, you know, I should tell you, Stephanie, I have, speaking of visual inspiration, I have your book, the Texas Towns book. Yeah. And I flip through that sometimes  because I love small town Texas.  Reminds me of where I grew up in Decatur, Texas, which is not that small anymore.  

But your book is one of my inspirations.

Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. 



Thanks for listening to this episode of Call and Response with K.Co Press.  You can find us online at www.kcopress.com , on Instagram @KCoPress  or on Facebook @KCoArts. 




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